BEIT UZIEL, Israel (AP)--Farmer Eli Sella considered the choices:bankruptcy or blasphemy. It was a no-brainer. He defied a religious edictand planted his artichokes.
Farmers like Sella are rebelling against a prominent rabbi who has done awaywith the wink-and-nod deception traditionally used for getting around thebiblical command that fields in the Holy Land must lay fallow once everyseven years.
As part of the old arrangement--condoned by most rabbis--farmers wouldsell their land to non-Jews in make-believe transactions during the seventhyear, the so-called Shmitta year, and keep tilling their fields.
However, Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv, considered the greatest living adjudicatorof religious issues, has ruled that the sabbatical must be strictly enforcedthis year.
This would mean that no Jewish-owned farm in the Holy Land can grow cropsfor a full year, starting Sept. 30, the Jewish New Year.
For consumers, even the non-religious, it means importing food and sky-highprices. Most Israeli farmers are secular, but in the past have soughtrabbinical approval in order to appeal to the widest possible market. Abouthalf of Israel's Jews observe dietary laws and might not buy produce withouta rabbinical seal.
However, secular farmers have threatened to ignore Elyahsiv's strictures andset up their own rabbi-free markets. Yosef Lapid, head of Shinui, a secularrights party, offered practical backing. ``We'll buy their produce,'' Lapidsaid.
Those who follow the strict interpretation will buy food from outside thebiblical boundaries, including places like the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights,and Jordan, paying higher prices for their piety.
Sella, 51, a traditional Jew, said following the new ruling would have meantdefaulting on loans and losing his property. ``I was facing bankruptcy,''said the mild-mannered muscular veteran of three Shmitta seasons, lookingout at his artichoke fields from the picture window in his living room.
Rabbi Shneour Revach, who oversees religious practice in Beit Uziel, afarming village of 70 families in the center of Israel, said Elyashiv'sruling was too unbending.
Revach, who opened an institute to study agriculture according to Jewishlaw, said that 120 years ago, when Jews started setting up farms in the HolyLand, rabbis realized that fulfilling the biblical commandment would lead todisaster. The agrarian economy would be ruined and non-Jews would take overthe unused land.
So they devised the fiction of selling the land to non-Jews for a year. Thefarmers hired non-Jews to work it during that period and the produce wassold under rabbinical supervision. ``A fiction, but an acceptable fiction,''smiled Revach.
Elyashiv's decree undermined Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, who hadendorsed the sale concept. Faced with medieval whispers of banishment andexcommunication, Bakshi-Doron, at one point close to tears, issued aclarification saying he would abide by Elyashiv's ruling but would supplysale certificates to farmers who could not survive without them.
A political power struggle is being played out behind the religious debate,said moderate Rabbi Doniel Hartman. He said ultra-Orthodox Jews, who rejectthe concept of a Jewish state, saw a chance to undermine the chief rabbi,symbol of religious Zionism. Hartman complained that not a single modernOrthodox rabbi came to Bakshi-Doron's defense. ``It's the end of religiousZionism,'' he said.
Rabbi Eliahu Klugman, who has known Elyashiv for 20 years, said no onesuspected him of ulterior motives. Elyashiv ruled that the Israeli economyis now strong enough to withstand a Shmitta year, and that there is nolonger a compelling reason to sidestep the biblical commandment.
But Revach, the rabbi of Beit Uziel, said observance should be voluntary andthat new ways need to be explored that allow farmers to follow the rules asmuch as possible.
For example, grapevines could be pruned in September, just before thesabbatical begins, instead of waiting until the winter, he said. Then thegrapes would be kosher.
Though Revach's goal is total sabbatical observance with no fictitious landsales, he said it must not be done by coercion.
``That would make religion hateful,'' he said.